These Things Helped Set A New Tri-City Unemployment Record

The Mid-Columbia economy is defying expectations, steaming through a season when hiring typically slows and construction work dries up.

The local unemployment rate hit a record low of 4.6 percent in September and remained there in October, according to numbers released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

That’s 22 percent and 23 percent below the same months in 2016, respectively.

“That is good news for a number of people who are unemployed,” said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

Suljic said she was pleased to see the unemployment rate stay down at a time when the local resident workforce had grown by about 4.5 percent during the year.

“That will be the trend we want,” she said.

The Tri-Cities hasn’t seen 4.6 percent unemployment since 1990.

Pre-1990 numbers aren’t comparable, but Suljic said it’s unlikely the unemployment rate has been this low since the breakneck days of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s.

Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council, predicted the Tri-Cities will again lead the state for job growth, as it did in 2016.

There were 5,500 more jobs in October than the year prior, thanks in part to newcomers such as the AutoZone distribution warehouse in Pasco and the new french fry processing line at Lamb Weston in Richland.

Together, the two added more than 350 direct jobs to the local economy.

“We’re bullish,” Adrian said.

The unemployment rate reflects flukes of nature too.

Construction grew faster than any other segment of the economy at almost 14 percent.

Suljic attributes at least a portion of the trend to last year’s severe winter, which shut down projects across the region for weeks, if not months.

Suljic said contractors took it as a message to get as much 2017 work done before December as possible, noting that few anticipated the ferocity of last winter.

“It taught a lot of builders the lesson to finish up activities by mid to late November,” Suljic said. “Most contractors are doing everything they can before the big storm hits.”

Local contractors are still reacting to the freakish winter, agreed Luke Lukewitkowski, director of membership and industry relations for the Inland Northwest chapter of Associated General Contractors, which serves the Tri-Cities.

Weeks of sub-freezing temperatures and mounting snow in January and February delayed projects ranging from the Port of Kennewick’s Columbia Gardens wine village to a student housing development at WSU Tri-Cities.

“That halted work and pushed back the new year,” Lukewitkowski said.

Most employment sectors posted 2 percent to 3 percent growth in October.

But retail, a Tri-City stalwart, actually dropped 300 jobs, landing at 13,000 in October.

Suljic said she has not heard retailers complain about labor shortages during the holiday shopping season.

Columbia Center manager Barbara Johnson said mall retailers who hired earlier were able to fully staff up for the season, while seasonal operators such as Hickory Farms found hiring more challenging.

The mall normally plays host to 1,200 to 2,400 workers, but that doubles during the holidays.

JCPenny’s and Macy’s add about 200 workers apiece. Johnson said both hired early and are ready for Black Friday.

Adrian reported that he’s seeing more obvious evidence of worker shortages in the form of “Help Wanted” signs posted in store doors.

He was particularly surprised to find an employment pamphlet tucked in with his lunch order at a local drive-through.

“To me, that’s an indication that the labor market is getting tight,” he said.

Washington’s unemployment fell slightly to 4.2 percent in October.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell
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